Premiere: “Metaphysics”, “The Meek One”, “Le Sacre du Printemps”
(three one-act ballets)
St. Petersburg, Russia
14 and 15 November 2006
By Catherine Pawlick
As part of the Mariinsky Theatre’s development of new, contemporary ballet productions, an evening of three one-act ballets premiered on November 14 with sets and costumes by Russian avante-garde artist Mikhail Chemiakin, and choreography by Donvena Pandoursky. Musical works by Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky were conducted in grandiose manner under Maestro Gergiev’s powerful baton, culminating in a surprisingly well-rounded evening of innovative, inspirational dance.
Lest the reader go no further, we will begin with the most stirring piece of the evening.
“The Meek One”, based on Dostoevsky’s short story, was reason alone to buy a ticket and attend this performance. Twice. Pandoursky has created a masterwork in this short ballet that marries high-level lyrical choreographic sequences to music so poetic, it exists on another plane altogether. The entire work is an essay in balanced composition and one that the Mariinsky would do well to perform frequently.
The first night, Alexander Sergeev delivered an impressive performance as the Man. His complete mastery of modern dance vocabulary lent a seamless pliability to his movements, inflecting them with a level of professionalism well beyond his years. Not only did he dance with abandon, but his expressions of grief and the frequent shifts between passion and impenetrability were expertly done. It became clear through his interpretation that the ill treatment of the Meek One was due in part to his inability to cope with grief. The result was a tug-of-war in the dance between attraction and rejection.
As his wife and the Meek One, Daria Vasnetsova also reached new heights in her artistic interpretation. Clothed in a simple white leotard dress, her port de bras was as fluid as liquid mercury, her legs exquisite in their clean positioning. But above all, her desperation, frustration and fear were visible in her face throughout the ballet. Her repeat efforts to draw the Man to her are met at times with welcome arms, at others with abuse and physical violence. Vasnetsova’s every step suggests the character’s meekness, yet, until the very end, she will not submit to defeat. One had the impression that these two dancers had ventured into another level of existence, transcending themselves to act as a conduit for this conglomeration of supreme artistry: Rachmaninoff’s rapturous music, Pandoursky’s sweeping choreography, and Dostoyevsky’s heart-rending tale. A more perfect combination couldn’t exist. Both Sergeev and Vasnetsova together offered a performance of deep passion and emotional depth, while linking choreographic sequences seamlessly.
So as not to skip over the other, equally pertinent parts of this ballet, the Angels of Death, very tall beings with skull heads and large black wings, appear in each of the ballet’s three scenes, offering a chilling implication of the reality of non-existence. Dostoyevsky’s religious theme is thus reinforced by the Angels and by the Meek One’s ultimate realization of the impossibility of attaining harmony and love in this lifetime.
The Ghosts of St. Petersburg, a crowd of men and women dressed circa 1800 in top hats, bonnets, wide skirts and overcoats, enter and exit throughout the piece acting as a barrier between the couple. The second scene depicts the military regiment encountered by the Man. Pandoursky’s choreography in this section, along with the Russian military costumes, is sublime. Led by the Officer, danced on opening night by Ruben Bobovnikov and even more effectively by Nikolai Naumov the second night, the regiment detests the Man for being unlike them. A “mass orgy of wrath” is inflicted upon the Man before becomes “one of them”, signified by his acceptance of a military coat and his inclusion in the regiment’s dance. The Meek One appears here, and in the final scene succumbs to a symbolic rape at the hands of the Officer while the Man stands elsewhere on stage. The myriad of meaning-infused details encapsulated in this short work are too plentiful to enumerate here. Suffice it to say that genius lies buried in every corner of the ballet, from the steps, to the libretto, to the score.
This ballet stole my heart, my emotions and my attention for every microsecond, from the minute the curtain rose until the last bow, so much so that I returned on Nov. 15 explicitly to see this piece. The second night, Sergeev and Vasnetsova were replaced by Viktor Baranov and Olesya Novikova. The effects here were dimmed only slightly by the mismatch of Baranov’s reserve and Novikova’s well-executed performance. The two weren’t on the same plane, but the ballet itself did not suffer significantly for it. ‘The Meek One’ is a keeper, a ballet one could never tire of watching.
The evening had opened, however, with “Metaphysics”, which presents a visual portrayal of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2 in D Minor, opus 40, in movement form. The initial visual impact is one of abstraction, and the dance begins with a burst of energy from the orchestra pit that is matched by the arrival of the dancers arrive onstage. The girls are clothed in sleek black unitards with large blue dots; the men are also in unitards decorated with stripes that wrap around their chests and thighs. Everyone has silver hair and face paint, and the wings and backdrop proffer ancient hieroglyphics in muted earth tones. The dancers move in an energetic frenzy that suggests the molecules of atoms, racing in different formations, now together, now apart. Speedy jumps, turns and lifts abound, and Pandoursky has managed to capture the distinctions in tempo and key in her choreography. Indeed, her choreographic vocabulary here is rich. Various step combinations are repeated, lending a structure to the dance and underlining the patterns within the score. Two lead dancers, Maxim Zuizin with the athletic Anastasia Petushkova, represent Man and Woman as magnetic opposites, both repelling and attracting one another. Petushkova danced with incessant energy, at times seeming the greatest source of vigor onstage. Zuizin was a reliable partner, seamless in his jumps. His performances on both nights proved that he has all the mixings of a great danseur noble, as yet untapped. As part of this section, some of the female molecules (for one isn’t sure what else these silver-faced objects should be called) showed off their undulating shoulders and hips to attract the men. A brief dance among the girls ended when Zuizin entered to dance a solo and was then joined by two other men. In general it was difficult to follow any specific storyline in this section aside from that delineated in the program notes.
The second part of the ballet, Theme and Variations, depicted a gradual approach to man’s inner world. The libretto in the accompanying program offered this explanation:
The images are now more clearly defined, now they dissolve into abstract compositions. In the finale an aggressive power grows, reaching its culmination in a belligerent march. But with the final bars a lyric tableau of jubilant conciliation emerges.
Again, more abstract movement patterns filled the stage. Dancers often stopped to pose, arms outstretched towards the gigantic native mask on the upstage backdrop. One had the impression it represented a primal God of sorts, but so little was defined, that the interpretations of ‘Metaphysics’ are limited only to the extent of one’s imagination.
The final ballet of the evening, “Le Sacre du Printemps” in fact premiered in Sofia, Bulgaria in a smaller version this January, but this performance was the first that Russian audiences had seen of the short, playful work. Clearly a good choice for children, this interpretation of the famous Vaslav Nijinsky ballet employs the same colorfully costumed creatures that ‘The Magic Nut’ features in its underwater kingdom scene.
Frogs, flies, ants, butterflies, sylphs, elves and an evil spider depict a microcosm of human interaction in the animal world. It isn’t quite kitsch, but it is very cute. As long as on does not expect pure classicism, a rework of the Nijinsky fertility rite, or an emotionally poignant ballet, one will not be disappointed. Outstanding for her polished dancing and heartfelt acting was Ekaterina Ivannikova as the Sylph and Alexei Timofeev as the Elf consumed, sadly, by the Spider, which was danced with undulating expertise by Mikhail Lobukhin. The cast included additional insect and animal creatures courtesy of the Vaganova Academy – the baby frogs in particular brought more than a chuckle out of most audience members.
Valery Gergiev conducted opening night, while Valery Ka and Mikhail Giuttler replaced him on November 15.